Academic journal article Journal of Singing

"Things Have Indeed Come to a Pretty Pass"-The Early Years of Lyric Diction Literature

Academic journal article Journal of Singing

"Things Have Indeed Come to a Pretty Pass"-The Early Years of Lyric Diction Literature

Article excerpt

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FOR THE PAST FIFTY YEARS, musicians have enjoyed an increasingly comprehensive array of published material on lyric diction written for an English-speaking audience. The modern literature enjoys a relatively uniform pattern of reporting, thanks to the standardizing effect of the International Phonetic Alphabet, but, prior to the Second World War, several divergent empirical approaches were devised, almost all attempting to present an involved discipline with optimum clarity and simplicity for the nonspecialist reader. This article reviews selected primers and manuals on lyric diction from the late 19th to the mid 20th centuries, surveying what they had to offer to musicians of the day, and their limitations. A substantial selected bibliography is supplied at the end.

Clara Kathleen Rogers's injunction in the title of this article referred to "young people [who] confess themselves ashamed or afraid to speak their mother-tongue correctly."1 She encapsulates a righteous notion, ubiquitous in society at the time and still prevalent today, that there is a correct manner of speaking and singing to which all who speak the language ought to aspire. "A gentleman by birth and education should surely talk like one!," she advises, since "a fixed standard of pronunciation . . . is governed by the higher law of euphony."2 The early literature on sung diction runs a wide gamut between the systematic investigation of speech sounds on the one hand, and the chatty remonstrances of voice teachers, self-proclaimed experts in vocal diction, on the other.

Authors have been writing manuals on how to sing for hundreds of years. In the most well known earlier voice training manuals (Garcia, Lamperti, Marchesi, Stockhausen), text entered into the discussion only insofar as it might require adjustment to accommodate the singing voice. In other words, fluency in the language was assumed, and no systematic survey of the sound pattern of languages was undertaken. In some cases, a portion of the discussion is devoted to delivery of text and/or proper pronunciation. In France and Italy in the 1750s, a pamphlet polemic involving several authors, known as the Querelle des bouffons, heatedly debated many operatic traditions, including the relative merits and pitfalls of French and Italian as languages suitable for singing. At stake were both vowels and consonants-French vow- els being criticized as unsuitable, especially the nasals and mixed vowels, if for no more compelling a reason than Italian didn't have them. Jean-Jacques Rousseau, somewhat ironically, was the principal polemicist in favor of Italian, and argued that French was intrinsically inferior to Italian, having too many vowels and consonants. Ancient Greek had seven vowels, Italian has seven vowels, while French is mired in excess.


Monographs tailored specifically to the diction needs of singers do not much predate the 20th century. One of the earliest diction manuals written specifically for singers is Alexander Ellis's Pronunciation for Singers (1875). Ellis was a mathematician and philologist with a specialization in phonetics, remembered today primarily for his translation of Helmholtz's landmark Die Lehre von den Tonempfindungen. Ellis's early work in philology resulted in a seminal book on English pronunciation, and the development of the English Phonotypic Alphabet, with Isaac Pitman. This alphabet, with its inventory of forty sound symbols, was first presented in 1848 in his Essentials of Phonetics. His work on new alphabetic characters resulted in an orthographic "simplification" of written English, and the debut of linguistic terms (such as glide), and glyphs (such as ..., I, ..., ∫, and ...), which found their way into modern IPA via Henry Sweet's Romic alphabet.3 Ellis was the model upon which G. B. Shaw based Henry Higgins in Pygmalion.

Ellis's book is certainly not a beginner's manual. It is a thorough investigation of English speech sounds, along with outlines of the sounds of French, German, and Italian, with a particular emphasis on diction as applied to musical repertoire. …

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